NEW YORK – Let the battle to determine Wisconsin’s starting quarterback in 2019 begin in earnest.
Inconsistent quarterback play was one of several factors that prevented the offense from making the progress players and coaches expected this season.
“There’s not one thing that we did at that position that you say, ‘All right, this is how we want it to be,’ ” UW coach Paul Chryst said after the Badgers closed the ‘18 season with a 35-3 victory over Miami on Thursday in the Pinstripe Bowl. “There’s moments, but clearly we’ve got to get better at that position, and better in the consistency of play at that position.”
But who will win the job?
Alex Hornibrook entered this season as the undisputed starter after his MVP performance in the 2017 Orange Bowl.
But he missed 3½ regular-season games and the Pinstripe Bowl because of a concussion and subsequent concussion-related symptoms.
There is no guarantee Hornibrook will be able to return next season.
Jack Coan showed flashes of solid play but remains in the early developmental stage. Chase Wolf and Danny Vanden Boom are unknowns, and heralded freshman Graham Mertz is set to join the program next semester.
“I think every time you go into it – that’s the beautiful thing about sports — you compete,” Chryst said. “You have to.”
Here is a look at the rest of UW’s personnel heading into next season.
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Three seniors started the bowl game – left guard Michael Deiter, right guard Beau Benzschawel and fullback Alec Ingold.
Redshirt junior David Edwards, who missed the final three games because of injury, and redshirt sophomore center Tyler Biadasz are mulling whether to enter the NFL draft and have until Jan. 14 to submit their paperwork.
The staff has built up the depth on the line, however, and UW appears to have several players ready to fill in next season.
Cole Van Lanen should be ready to be the full-time left tackle. Jon Dietzen could slide inside to guard. Jason Erdmann is ready for a full-time starting role, likely at guard. Kayden Lyles, who filled in at defensive end this season, could start at either guard spot or at center if Biadasz leaves. Logan Bruss started three games this season and appears ready to take over at right tackle in the likely event Edwards turns pro.
“I have a ton of confidence in Logan because I know the type of player he is,” Edwards said. “He is a really explosive athlete and he moves guys off the line of scrimmage. He is definitely light years ahead of where I was at that age.”
Tailback Jonathan Taylor, who has rushed for 4,171 yards in his first two seasons, headlines the returning play-makers.
Also expected back are wide receivers Danny Davis, A.J. Taylor and Kendric Pryor, and tight end Jake Ferguson.
UW loses tailback Taiwan Deal, who was finally healthy and put together a solid senior season. Yet the staff is high on Nakia Watson, who will be a redshirt freshman next season, and incoming freshman Julius Davis from Menomonee Falls High School. Garrett Groshek, UW’s Swiss Army Knife, will find a spot in the rotation.
The UW coaches understood the unit wouldn’t be as formidable as in past seasons because of the loss of three key linemen, both starting outside linebackers and three starters in the secondary.
Injuries to ends Garrett Rand (Achilles) and Isaiahh Loudermilk (knee) exacerbated the talent drain on the line, which affected the play of the linebackers and secondary.
Rand never played a down, though he hopes to be ready for spring practice. Loudermilk battled knee an ankle issues and never made the impact he hoped.
“I know the trainers are excited about the way his rehab is going,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said of Rand. “It is his job to continue to push and get himself as good as he can for the season.
“He has made plays for us in the past. You take him out of the lineup for an entire season and everybody is in a different role than they would have been. It is unfortunate for him.
“You love him because of the way he works. For him to miss an entire season, it is tough on a guy. You just make sure you keep him involved.
“He is going to be hungry when he gets back. It is still our job to protect him and make sure he is healthy.”
UW’s top three ends next season could be Rand, Loudermilk and Matt Henningsen, who started 10 games this season. It will be up to ends Aaron Vopal and redshirt freshman Isaiah Mullens to earn playing time.
Bryson Williams will be UW’s only experienced nose tackle. Someone will have to develop into a competent nose tackle, though Leonhard often deploys a 2-4-5.
Chris Orr, Jack Sanborn, Mike Maskalunas and Griffin Grady will have to work together at inside linebacker to fill the void created by the loss of T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly.
Zack Baun developed into a solid player at outside linebacker as the season progressed. Yet with senior Andrew Van Ginkel gone, Baun is the only threat on the outside and the defense depends on the outside linebackers making plays.
Leonhard could have installed a revolving door on the meeting room for the members of the secondary because he was forced to play different combinations almost every week.
Safety D’Cota Dixon departs but everyone else returns. The short-term pains should benefit the unit in 2019.
Kicker Rafael Gaglianone, who missed both field-goal attempts in the bowl game to finish 70 of 92 overall, played his last college game in the bowl.
Kickoff specialist Zach Hintze and incoming freshman Blake Wilcox are the top contenders to replace him.
Connor Allen replaced Anthony Lotti as the starting punter against Northwestern, UW’s eighth game of the season. Lotti, however, took back the job against Miami and said he will return next season.
Neither punter was consistent enough in 2018, however.
Nor were the return units. Penalties outpaced big plays and something has to change for UW to be a complete team in 2019.